Red Cloud Students Become Leaders for Food Sovereignty

Red Cloud’s Farm-to-School program is growing leaps and bounds, with the goal of increasing students’ knowledge of Indigenous methods of food production as a path to a deeper understanding of Lakȟóta culture. Yet it is Red Cloud students themselves who inspire our work to provide access to and knowledge of traditional Lakȟóta foods. Below, meet two high school students at Red Cloud who are both emerging leaders in the movement for food sovereignty.

Tyler Star Comes Out2

Tyler Star Comes Out ‘21

Tyler didn’t grow up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, so when her family moved back, she knew she wanted to learn more about Lakȟóta language, culture, or traditions. As she was introduced to her relatives, her grandparents taught her more about the history of her people — and she became fascinated with how colonization had stripped Lakȟóta people of their right to hunt and gather traditional foods. That knowledge has made her more committed than ever before to advocate for healthy, traditional foods that once sustained her people and provided good health, generation after generation.

How did you first learn about and get involved with food sovereignty issues?
I participated in a summer program called Upward Bound in Boulder, Colorado, and took a class called Native Pathways. My teacher was majoring in agriculture and issues around food sovereignty, and that opened my eyes to many new issues. She told me about a conference being held by the Intertribal Agriculture Council and asked if I was interested in going.

In order to apply, I had to write an essay about returning to and revitalizing our traditional foods. So I decide to interview elders around our community, to get their input on ideas for the future, particularly around food. When I spoke with elders, they talked about how we need to start living off our land again, instead of depending on stores that sell food that isn’t healthy and connected to health conditions like diabetes, obesity and heart disease. My tagline in the essay became, “Make Traditional the New Normal.”

When was the conference, and what was the conference like?
The conference happened last December in Los Vegas, and I learned so much about agriculture and food sovereignty from different tribes across the country, and how they returned to harvesting their own food on their own land. One tribe had used popcorn grown on their reservation with maple from another Indigneous community to make these really good popcorn balls. It interested and surprised me, how creative people can get with these natural foods.

There were only two tribes from Očhéthi Šakówiŋ there, including Cheyene River and me from the Oglala. And there were many other groups from schools there from all over the country--I was the only one who went on my own and not with a school group. So I’m hoping that our tribe can get involved, and that Red Cloud can start to send a group as well.

Why are these issues such a passion for you?
I didn’t grow up on the reservation, so when I moved here, I knew nothing of my culture or language or who I was as Indigenous person. I asked my dad if he could help me to start learning our culture and traditional ways. He introduced me to my relatives the first time, my grandpas and grandmas. They taught me a lot about history, about colonization, and how our rights got taken away, so that we couldn’t hunt anymore. They gave us rations, that are now commodities, and our people became really dependent on those. I want to turn all that around.

Our elders I spoke with talked a lot about not depending on stores, because they sell unhealthy foods that cause diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and other health problems. They said we should start investing in our own traditional foods by gardening and growing our own plants. My grandpa talked about how we should bring back the buffalo. His idea was that every month we could have a buffalo harvest, and show youth how to harvest buffalo, take off the hide, tan the hide, make traditional crafts with the rest of the body, and also distribute the meat elders and to the community to eat, to get back into our traditional ways of eating buffalo. Most people rely on hamburger, and that’s not as healthy. Our history and our way of life, our sovereignty, I want to bring it back. And this summer, driving around, I saw that a lot of people are growing more gardens, and that makes me happy. It’s starting to happen.

Are you excited about what’s starting to happen with Red Cloud’s Farm-to-School program?
I’m feeling really positive about it. I haven’t been able to take some of the classes yet, like Care for Uŋčí Makȟá (Grandmother Earth), but I love that we’re having farmer’s markets. I participated in selling salsa and helping my friend my zucchini bread. And walking around campus, there are more gardens now, and that makes me excited.

I hope we can continue to do more. When I interviewed Uŋčí Philomine Lakota, and she told me Red Cloud should plant our traditional foods, like plums, berries, sage, and cedar. Along the creek behind our campus, she said there used to be wild grapes, plums, chokecherries, and she wanted to see more of the traditional plants growing again here. I think it’s important for our students to realize we need to resort back to our traditional ways, and understand that these foods and plants are our medicines. These are the things that kept us healthy for hundreds and hundreds of years.

How do you think food sovereignty issues will play a role in your future?
I know I want to see more of my community grow with this issue of agriculture. I also want to create programs where we can show our youth more of our traditional ways, to help them grow with the language, harvesting, arts and crafts. Right now I’m figuring out what to study in college, so that I can do all those things. But I know I want to come back to my community and teach. Everything I’m doing and learning now, I’m preparing myself to teach in the future.

Destiny Big Crow

Destiny Big Crow ‘23

Early in her life, Destiny realized that she’s most grounded and calm when she’s out on the prairie harvesting traditional plants and medicines. She also realized early on that restoring access to traditional foods and medicines could address some of the most significant challenges facing her community. Those experiences have transformed into a passion for learning about traditional Lakȟóta foods--and a strong commitment to expanding food sovereignty for her people.

How did you first get interested in food and food sovereignty issues?
During the summers my family does a lot of harvesting with traditional plants, and that was one of my first interests. We would go out and pick our chokecherries, our buffalo berries, sage, and any other type of plant we’d need. I loved being able to go into the prairie and identify each plant and know its medicinal properties. Sometimes I invite my friends to come with us, but it’s mainly something we do when we prepare for different ceremonies over the summer, or when we’re preparing for winter. Those experiences drew me in and has always been important to me, and one of my biggest interests.

Also, one of my aunties is really self sufficient. She has her own chicken coop, a goat and a horse, and a garden where she grows lots of different foods. She’s one my biggest inspirations for food sovereignty.

Why is food sovereignty so important for the community?
If you’ve ever looked it up, our rates for diseases are really high, particularly for diabetes and heart problems. We’re also really limited to where we can shop, and healthy food is often out of reach to people on the reservation. I realized that, if we want to thrive, to be here in the future and be able to be who we are, we need the people! And we can’t stay healthy and well if we’re not watching out for ourselves and learning to be self-sustaining with the land. That realization stuck with me. It got me worried, and we need to do something about it.

How have these issues been a part of your education?
Back in February I was able to attend the first Lakȟóta Food Summit, [which focuses on food sovereignty, tradition, culture and community education] with a small group of my classmates. There were students from 12 different schools there. We had two months to prepare for it for, and had to design a poster based on food sovereignty issues.

Our poster looked at traditional foods versus colonized, non-Indigenous foods, and did a comparison of the two, highlighting the benefits of traditional plants and the disadvantages of what we eat today. It was really nice to be around a lot of people with the same interest, and learning from the more experienced people who have been working on these issues and to implement growing Indigneous plants in different communities throughout their lives.

Destiny's Poster

As Red Cloud grows its own Farm-to-School initiative, what are you excited about? And what do you want to see the program do?
A lot of things go through my mind! It’s been exciting to see the farmer’s market happen. I was able to set up my own booth and sell things from my garden and baked goods as well.

As a student, I would want to see more classes on the traditional ways and how we used to live. Going back to those ways has always been an inspiration for me. Having a class about traditional pants and being able to go into the field and experiencing it and harvesting it and taking it back to your families...I’ve always dreamed of a class like that. My auntie talked about having classes in canning and preserving things from your own garden. Really learning how to thrive off the land and where you live would be great.

How do you think food sovereignty issues will play a role in your life after high school?
I feel like these issues will stay front and center, because the safety and nurturing of my people is a huge thing for me. I’m thinking of studying botany and land preservation in the future, because I love hearing people’s stories about preserving the grasslands and other areas. I also connect food sovereignty back to my love of traditional arts, to beading and sewing. Through our traditional arts, you’re still thriving off the land, using things like [porcupine] quills to create.

All those things nurture your spirit in a different way; you’re more grounded in the person you are. When I’m out on the prairie with my family, we all spread out in different ways, and you’re out there by yourself, you have this calm and contented feeling. For me, it’s a way of prayer.


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